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Trader Joe’s Keeping a Cool Edge Essay

The average Trader Joe’s stocks only a small percentage of the products of local supermarkets in a space little larger than a corner store. How did this neighborhood market grow to earnings of $9 billion, garner superior ratings, and become a model of management? Take a walk down the aisles of Trader Joe’s and learn how sharp attention to the fundamentals of retail management made this chain more than the average Joe.

From Corner Store to Foodie Mecca

In more than 365 stores across the United States, hundreds of thousands of customers are treasure hunting.1 Driven by gourmet tastes but hungering for deals, they are led by cheerful guides in Hawaiian shirts who point them to culinary discoveries such as ahi jerky, ginger granola, and baked jalapeño cheese crunchies.

It’s just an average day at Trader Joe’s, the gourmet, specialty, and natural-foods store that offers staples such as milk and eggs along with curious, one-of-a-kind foods at below average prices in thirty-odd states.2 With their plethora of kosher, vegan, and gluten-free fare, Trader Joe’s has products to suit every dietary need.3 Foodies, hipsters, and recessionistas alike are attracted to the chain’s charming blend of low prices, tasty treats, and laid-back but enthusiastic customer service. Shopping at Trader Joe’s is less a chore than it is immersion into another culture. In keeping with its whimsical faux-nautical theme, crew members and managers wear loud tropical-print shirts. Chalkboards around every corner unabashedly announce slogans such as,

“You don’t have to join a club, carry a card, or clip coupons to get a good deal.”
“When you look at food retailers,” says Richard George, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University, “there is the low end, the big middle, and then there is the cool edge— that’s Trader Joe’s.”4 But how does Trader Joe’s compare with other stores with an edge, such as Whole Foods? Both obtain

products locally and from all over the world. Each values employees and strives to offer the highest quality. However, there’s no mistaking that Trader Joe’s is cozy and intimate, whereas Whole Foods’ spacious stores offer an abundance of choices. By limiting its stock and selling quality products at low prices, Trader Joe’s sells twice as much per square foot than other supermarkets.5 Most retail megamarkets, such as Whole Foods, carry between 25,000 and 45,000 products; Trader Joe’s stores carry only 4,000.6 But this scarcity benefits both Trader Joe’s and its customers.

According to Swarthmore professor Barry

Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More, “Giving people too much choice can result in paralysis. . . .[R] esearch shows that the more options you offer, the less likely people are to choose any.”7

David Rogers of DSR Marketing Systems expects other supermarkets to follow the Trader Joe’s model toward a smaller store size.
He cites several reasons, including excessive competitive floor space, development costs, and the aging population.8


Ruaridh Stewart/Zuma Press

Named by Fast Company as one of this year’s 50 Most Influential Companies, Trader Joe’s didn’t always stand for brie and baguettes at peanut butter and jelly prices.9 In 1958, the company began life in Los Angeles as a chain of 7-Eleven–style corner stores called Pronto Markets. Striving to differentiate his stores from those of his competitors in order to survive in a crowded marketplace, founder “Trader” Joe Coulombe, vacationing in the Caribbean, reasoned that consumers are more likely to try new things while on vacation.

In 1967 the first Trader Joe’s store opened in Pasadena. Mr. Coulombe had transformed his stores into oases of value by replacing humdrum sundries with exotic, one-of-a-kind foods priced persuasively below those of any reasonable competitor.10 In 1979, he sold his chain to the Albrecht family, German billionaires and owners of an estimated 8,700 Aldi markets in the United States, Europe, and Australia.11

The Albrechts shared Coulombe’s relentless pursuit of value, a trait inseparable from Trader Joe’s success. Recent annual sales are estimated at $9 billion, landing Trader Joe’s in the top third of Supermarket News’s Top 75 Retailers.12 Because it’s not easy competing with such giants as Whole Foods and Dean & DeLuca, the company applies its pursuit of value to every facet of management.

By keeping stores comparatively small—they average about 10–15,000 square feet—and shying away from prime locations, Trader Joe’s keeps real estate costs down.13 The chain prides itself on its thriftiness and cost-saving measures, proclaiming, “Every penny we save is a penny you save” and “Our CEO doesn’t even have a secretary.”14,15

Trader Giotto, Trader José, Trader Ming, and Trader Darwin

Trader Joe’s strongest weapon in the fight to keep costs low may also be its greatest appeal to customers: its stock. The company follows a deliciously simple approach to stocking stores: (1) search out tasty, unusual foods from all around the world; (2) contract directly with manufacturers; (3) label each product under one of several catchy house brands; and (4) maintain a small stock, making each product fight for its place on the shelf. This commonsense, low-overhead approach to retail serves Trader Joe’s well, embodying its commitment to aggressive cost-cutting.

Most Trader Joe’s products are sold under a variant of their house brand—dried pasta under the “Trader Giotto’s” moniker, frozen enchiladas under the “Trader Jose’s” label, vitamins under “Trader Darwin’s,” and so on. But these store brands don’t sacrifice quality—readers of Consumer Reports awarded Trader Joe’s house brands top marks.16 The house brand success is no accident. According to Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch,  “the company pursued the strategy to put our destiny in our own hands.”17 But playing a role in this destiny is no easy feat. Ten to fifteen new products debut each week at Trader Joe’s—and the company maintains a strict “one in, one out” policy.

Items that sell poorly or whose costs rise get the heave-ho in favor of new blood, something the company calls the “gangway factor.”18 If the company hears that customers don’t like something about a product, out it goes. In just such a move, Trader Joe’s phased out singleingredient products (such as spinach and garlic) from China. “Our customers have voiced their concerns about products from this region and we have listened,” the company said in a statement, noting that items would be replaced with “products from other regions until our customers feel as confident as we do about the quality and safety of Chinese products.”19

Conversely, discontinued items may be brought back if customers are vocal enough, making Trader Joe’s the model of an open system. “We feel really close to our customers,” says Audrey O’Connell, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe’s East. “When we want to know what’s on their minds, we don’t need to put them in a sterile room with a swinging bulb. We like to think of Trader Joe’s as an economic food democracy.”20 In return, customers keep talking, and they recruit new converts. Word-ofmouth advertising has lowered the corporation’s advertising budget to approximately 0.2% of sales, a fraction of the 4% spent by supermarkets.21 and customer expectations, teaching managers to imbue their
part-timers with the customer-focused attitude shoppers have come to expect.26

For all of its positive buzz, Trader Joe’s narrowly avoided a boycott recently when it became embroiled in a controversy over its opposition to the Campaign for Fair Food, an initiative organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to push for better wages and working conditions in Florida’s produce fields.27 Trader Joe’s insisted that it already followed the guidelines stipulated by the Fair Food campaign, but the CIW demanded increased transparency. Trader Joe’s finally signed an agreement with the CIW in February 2012, mere days before the nationally organized boycott of its stores was scheduled to begin.28 If Trader Joe’s has any puzzling trait, it’s that the company is more than a bit media-shy. Executives have granted no interviews since the Aldi Group took over. Company statements and spokespersons have been known to be terse—the company’s leases even stipulate that no store opening may be formally announced until a month before the outlet opens!29

The future looks bright for Trader Joe’s. In 2012, between 25– 30 locations are slated to open, and the company continues to break into markets hungry for reasonably priced gourmet goodies. But will Trader Joe’s struggle to sustain its international flavor in the face of rising fuel costs and shrinking discretionary income, or will the allure of cosmopolitan food at provincial prices continue to tempt consumers?

Customer Connection

Trader Joe’s connects with its customers because of the culture of product knowledge and customer involvement that its management cultivates among store employees. Each employee is encouraged to taste and learn about the products and to engage customers to share what they’ve experienced. Most shoppers recall instances when helpful crew members took the time to locate or recommend particular items. Despite the lighthearted tone suggested by marketing materials and instore ads, Trader Joe’s aggressively courts friendly, customeroriented employees by writing job descriptions highlighting desired soft skills (“ambitious and adventurous, enjoy smiling and have a strong sense of values”) as much as actual retail experience.22

A responsible, knowledgeable, and friendly “crew” is critical to Trader Joe’s success. Therefore, it nurtures its employees with a promote-from-within philosophy, and its employees earn more than their counterparts at other chain grocers. In California, Trader Joe’s employees can earn almost 20% more than counterparts at supermarket giants Albertsons or Safeway.23 Starting benefits include medical, dental, and vision insurance; company paid retirement; paid vacation; and a 10% employee discount.24 Assistant store managers earn a compensation package averaging $94,000 a year, and store managers’ packages average $132,000. One analyst estimates that a Wal-Mart store manager earning that much would need to run an outlet grossing six or seven times that of an average Trader Joe’s.25

Outlet managers are highly compensated, partly because they know the Trader Joe’s system inside and out (managers are hired only from within the company). Future leaders enroll in training programs such as Trader Joe’s University that foster in them the loyalty necessary to run stores according to both company

Discussion Questions
1. In what ways does Trader Joe’s demonstrate the importance of each responsibility in the management process—planning, organizing, leading, and controlling?

2. Trader Joe’s is owned by a German company operating in America. What are the biggest risks that international ownership and global events pose for Trader Joe’s performance effectiveness and performance efficiency?

Problem Solving

At the age of 22 and newly graduated from college, Hazel has just accepted a job with Trader Joe’s as a shift leader. She’ll be supervising 4 team members who fill part-time jobs in the produce section. Given Trader Joe’s casual and nontraditional work environment, what should she do and what should she avoid doing in the first few days of work to establish herself as a skillful manager of this team?

Further Research

Study news reports to find more information on Trader Joe’s management and organization practices. Look for comparisons with its competitors and try to identify whether or not Trader Joe’s has the right management approach and business model for continued success. Are there any internal weaknesses or external competitors or industry forces that might cause future problems?

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